By Deepak Kumar Nayak
On September 29, 2023, a top Communist Party of India-Maoist (CPI-Maoist) cadre, Kamalu (25), was killed in an encounter in Roopjhar Police Station limits in Balaghat District of Madhya Pradesh. Kamalu, who was a member of the Tada Dadekasa Dalam (armed squad) was carrying a cumulative reward of INR 1.4 million on his head, including INR 600,000 announced by the Maharashtra, INR 500,000 by the Chhattisgarh, and INR 300,000 by the Madhya Pradesh governments. Police said a rifle was recovered from the dead ultra, who was a resident of Bijapur in Chhattisgarh and had been part of the Maoist movement since 2015.
Earlier, on April 22, 2023, two women Maoists, Sunita, an ‘area committee’ member and ‘commander’ of the Bhoramdev Committee (a Maoist wing), and Sarita Khatia Mocha, an ‘area committee’ member and active in the Vistar Dalam, were killed in an encounter with Security Forces (SFs) in the Kadla Forest area of Balaghat District. Sunita and Mocha collectively carried a reward of INR 2.8 million on their heads. A cache of arms and ammunition, including guns, cartridges and other weapons, were recovered from their possession.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least three Naxalites [Left Wing Extremists] have been killed in Balaghat District in the current year, thus far (all data till October 8, 2023). During the corresponding period of 2022, three Naxalites were killed. Another three Naxalites were killed in the remaining part of the year, taking the total number of killed Naxalites to six through 2022. This was the highest number of Naxalites killed in a single year, since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data on LWE-related incidents in India. At least 16 Naxalites have been killed, in Balaghat, accounting for 88.88 per cent of the overall Naxalites neutralised (18 killed) in the state.
Moreover, search operations and combing raids have resulted in the arrest of 30 Naxalites in the District since March 6, 2000. However, the last incident of arrest was recorded on August 10, 2021, when a CPI-Maoist cadre, Sandeep Kunjam aka Lakkhu (25), an ‘area committee’ member of the Khatiya Mocha Area Dalam, was arrested after an encounter with the Police in Jairasi village under Birsa Police Station limits in Balaghat District. Lakkhu was carrying a total reward of INR 800,000, including INR 300,000 in Madhya Pradesh and INR 500,000 in neighbouring Chhattisgarh.
Mounting SF pressure has also led to the surrender of seven Maoists since 2000. The last surrender incident, however, was recorded as far back as January 24, 2004, when seven Naxalites belonging to the Malajkhand Dalam, including one woman, surrendered before the Police at the Balaghat District Headquarters.
Not surprisingly, Maoist-related incidents are on a decline. While total incidents decreased from nine in 2022 (till October 8) to five in 2023, incidents of killing decreased from three in 2022 (till October 8) to two in 2023 (in the comparative time frame). Total fatalities declined from five (two civilians and three Naxalites) in 2022 (till October 8) to three (all Naxalites), in 2023. Another three fatalities (all Naxalites) were reported in the remaining period of 2022. Overall fatalities in 2022 were the highest in a year since 2000, with the previous high of four recorded twice earlier: in 2019 and 2020.
A total of 11 civilian deaths, including a high of three civilian fatalities in 2021, have been recorded since March 6, 2000. The last civilian fatality in Balaghat District was recorded on August 6, 2022, when a villager was shot dead by Maoists on suspicion of being a ‘police informer’. Of the three SF fatalities since March 6, 2000, two were reported in 2000. The last fatality was recorded on September 22, 2010, when Harish Rahgdale (27), a trooper of the Madhya Pradesh Police Hawk Team [a specialised unit for countering terrorist and Left Wing Extremist operations], was killed, and Kamlesh, another trooper, was injured in a Maoist ambush near Sitapala in Balaghat District.
Balaghat, one of Madhya Pradesh’s 52 districts, with a total area of 9,245 square kilometres, has about 85 per cent under forest cover, and occupies the south eastern portion of the Satpura Range and the upper valley of the Wainganga River. The Wainganga River separates the district from Seoni, while the rivers Bawanthadi and Bagh define the inter-state boundary, makes the region difficult to access. The district is bounded by the LWE affected Rajnandgaon district (Chhattisgarh) in the East, Seoni (Madhya Pradesh) in the West, Mandla (Madhya Pradesh) in the North and the Bhandara District of Maharashtra State in the south. Due to its difficult terrain, dense forests, a vulnerable population and extreme backwardness, the rebels find Balaghat to be of strategic importance.
As is the case elsewhere, the Maoists are presently trying to revive their movement.
Indeed, on September 17, 2023, the Hawk Team, came under Maoist attack in an area under the Debarveli Police Post in Balaghat District. According to the Police, around 10 to 12 Maoists opened fire on the Hawk Team patrolling the Naxalite-affected area at around 2 pm [IST]. The troopers took shelter and fired back on the Maoists, who ran away, taking advantage of the dense forest. No casualty was reported on either side. Superintendent of Police (SP) Sameer Saurabh later disclosed that the Maoists were trying to create spaces in the Balaghat, Mandla, and Dindori districts. Security agencies of the state and the government of India are maintaining tight vigil on their activities in the Madhya Pradesh.
On September 5, 2023, in a search operation in the Choriya Chilora Forest area under the Lanji Police Station in Balaghat District, SFs recovered a haul of explosives at a dump, which included 15 kilograms of urea, 17 kilograms of charcoal, 1.7 kilograms of sulfur, 1.7 kilograms of ammonium nitrate, 10 feet of Cordex (industrial), one pressure cooker and 11 iron pipes. SFs also recovered three pressure cooker bombs, often deployed by the Maoists to attack Police teams. SFs have recovered arms and ammunition on at least five occasions in 2023, as compared to one such incident in the corresponding period of 2022, and another two in the remaining period of 2022. A total of 26 such incidents have been recorded since 2000.
Meanwhile, according to an August 26, 2023, report, during interrogation, a Maoist couple arrested from Jabalpur District on August 22, 2023, revealed their strategy of deliberately reducing violent incidents to expand their extortion machinery to newer areas. Intelligence reports also suggested that Maoists were using the funds available to them to recruit new members and procure arms and ammunition. The rebels use Balaghat to continue the activity of extortion in the form of levies from tendu patta (leaves of the Diospyros Melonoxylon plant used to manufacture beedis, a kind of mini cigar) and bamboo contractors, as sources of funds for the outfit. Although there is no official estimate of the extent of the tendu patta extortion economy in Balaghat, guesstimates put the Maoist collection in the crores of rupees from tendu patta contractors in the district in any given season. An internal report says that Balaghat produces around 85,000 bags of tendu patta per season, and the rebels often demanded a ‘levy’ ranging from INR 500 to 900 per bag from the contractors.
Looking at Maoist efforts and persisting activities, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (UMHA) has classified Balaghat in the list of ‘25 most LWE affected districts’ from eight States across the country, and also included it among the 70 LWE-affected Districts in 10 States across India, that are covered under the Centre’s Security Related Expenditure (SRE) scheme, which funds focused operations against the rebels.
Moreover, on June 22, 2023, Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra reviewed anti-Naxalite operations, and included Balaghat, along with Dindori and Mandla districts, in a single Police Zone, for effective anti-Maoist operations.
Facing extreme risks across their traditional strongholds, the Maoists find Balaghat and its surrounding stretches useful as a safe haven. However, continued SF operations have substantially limited LWE activities in Balaghat as well. More aggressive operational measures by the SFs will help end the remaining Maoist threat in the district, as well as in the state at large.
- Deepak Kumar Nayak
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management